Artists Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz filed a class action lawsuit against Stability AI, DeviantArt, and MidJourney in federal district court alleging causes of action for copyright infringement, removal or alteration of copyright management information, and violation of publicity rights. (Andersen, et al. v. Stability AI Ltd. et al., No. 23-cv-00201-WHO (N.D. Calif. 2023).) The claims relate to the defendants’ alleged unlicensed use of their copyright-protected artistic works in generative-AI systems.
On October 30, 2023, U.S. district judge William H. Orrick dismissed all claims except for Andersen’s direct infringement claim against Stability. Most of the dismissals, however, were granted with leave to amend.
McKernan’s and Ortiz’s copyright infringement claims
The judge dismissed McKernan’s and Ortiz’s copyright infringement claims because they did not register the copyrights in their works with the U.S. Copyright Office.
I criticized the U.S. requirement of registration as a prerequisite to the enforcement of a domestic copyright in a U.S. court in a 2019 Illinois Law Review article (“Copyright Enforcement: Time to Abolish the Pre-Litigation Registration Requirement.”) This is a uniquely American requirement. Moreover, the requirement does not apply to foreign works. This has resulted in the anomaly that foreign authors have an easier time enforcing the copyrights in their works in the United States than U.S. authors do. Nevertheless, until Congress acts to change this, it is still necessary for U.S. authors to register their copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office before they can enforce their copyrights in U.S. courts.
Since there was no claim that McKernan or Ortiz had registered their copyrights, the judge had no real choice under current U.S. copyright law but to dismiss their claims.
Andersen’s copyright infringement claim against Stability
Andersen’s complaint alleges that she “owns a copyright interest in over two hundred Works included in the Training Data” and that Stability used some of them as training data. Defendants moved to dismiss this claim because it failed to specifically identify which of those works had been registered. The judge, however, determined that her attestation that some of her registered works had been used as training images sufficed, for pleading purposes. A motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint to state a claim; it does not test the truth or falsity of the assertions made in a pleading. Stability can attempt to disprove the assertion later in the proceeding. Accordingly, Judge Orrick denied Stability’s motion to dismiss Andersen’s direct copyright infringement claim.
Andersen’s copyright infringement claims against DeviantArt and MidJourney
The complaint alleges that Stability created and released a software program called Stable Diffusion and that it downloaded copies of billions of copyrighted images (known as “training images”), without permission, to create it. Stability allegedly used the services of LAION (LargeScale Artificial Intelligence Open Network) to scrape the images from the Internet. Further, the complaint alleges, Stable Diffusion is a “software library” providing image-generating service to the other defendants named in the complaint. DeviantArt offers an online platform where artists can upload their works. In 2022, it released a product called “DreamUp” that relies on Stable Diffusion to produce images. The complaint alleges that artwork the plaintiffs uploaded to the DeviantArt site was scraped into the LAION database and then used to train Stable Diffusion. MidJourney is also alleged to have used the Stable Diffusion library.
Judge Orrick granted the motion to dismiss the claims of direct infringement against DeviantArt and MidJourney, with leave to amend the complaint to clarify the theory of liability.
The complaint makes allegations about unlawful removal of copyright management information in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Judge Orrick found the complaint deficient in this respect, but granted leave to amend to clarify which defendant(s) are alleged to have done this, when it allegedly occurred, and what specific copyright management information was allegedly removed.
Publicity rights claims
Plaintiffs allege that the defendants used their names in their products by allowing users to request the generation of artwork “in the style of” their names. Judge Orrick determined the complaint did not plead sufficient factual allegations to state a claim. Accordingly, he dismissed the claim, with leave to amend. In a footnote, the court deferred to a later time the question whether the Copyright Act preempts the publicity claims.
In addition, DeviantArt filed a motion to strike under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute. The court deferred decision on that motion until after the Plaintiffs have had time to file an amended complaint.
Unfair competition claims
The court also dismissed plaintiffs’ claims of unfair competition, with leave to amend.
Breach of contract claim against DeviantArt
Plaintiffs allege that DeviantArt violated its own Terms of Service in connection with their DreamUp product and alleged scraping of works users upload to the site. This claim, too, was dismissed with leave to amend.
Media reports have tended to overstate the significance of Judge Orrick’s October 30, 2023 Order. Reports of the death of the lawsuit are greatly exaggerated. It would have been nice if greater attention had been paid to the registration requirement during the drafting of the complaint, but the lawsuit nevertheless is still very much alive. We won’t really know whether it will remain that way unless and until the plaintiffs amend the complaint – which they are almost certainly going to do.
Need help with copyright registration? Contact attorney Tom James.